Mainstream and local press have covered trolling cases on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites into an inch of their life this year as public outrage about the phenomenon has led to some UK folk being arrested under suspicion of malicious communications offences.
As a result, the director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer confirmed today that he planned to hold consultation with Brit citizens on social media cases involving trolls who take to sites populated by celebrities and openly attack them with abusive messages.
However, such vitriol is not limited to famous people as was recently demonstrated by the case of an X Factor fan who showed her support for disqualified performer Frankie Cocozza on Facebook.
Nicola Brookes, 45, of Brighton, received "vicious and depraved" taunts on the dominant social network immediately after posting positive comments about the troubled reality star.
In that case, a Brummie plod was later cuffed relating to complaints from Brookes about the abuse she was subjected to on Facebook. She also claimed that her account and emails had been hacked by an unknown attacker.
Brookes won a landmark High Court ruling in June this year with an order forcing Facebook to reveal the identities of anonymous internet trolls who had abused her online.
Throughout the summer months, cases involving online trolls have continued to trickle through the front pages of newspapers.
The leading QC, in the same statement confirming his decision to provide guidelines to prosecutors, also dismissed a "one-off" homophobic message about Olympic diver Tom Daley as not being "grossly offensive" enough for criminal charges to be brought.
He said semi-professional footballer Daniel Thomas posted a "misguided" comment on Twitter that was only intended for family and friends but which ended up being shared on the micro-blogging site.
Daley, who is not unfamiliar with online troll attacks, had told the CPS that he did not think prosecution was necessary in this case.
This case is one of a growing number involving the use of social media that the CPS has had to consider. There are likely to be many more. The recent increase in the use of social media has been profound. It is estimated that on Twitter alone there are 340 million messages sent daily.
And the context in which this interactive social media dialogue takes place is quite different to the context in which other communications take place. Access to social media is ubiquitous and instantaneous. Banter, jokes and offensive comment are commonplace and often spontaneous. Communications intended for a few may reach millions.
He added that the CPS had a difficult task of balancing the fundamental right of free speech and the need to prosecute serious wrongdoing on a case-by-case basis.
Criminal prosecution should clearly be considered appropriate, Starmer said, where a sustained campaign of harassment - that may involve deeply abusive remarks - of an individual repeatedly takes place. But a rigorous public interest test had to be applied in all cases.
To ensure that CPS decision-making in these difficult cases is clear and consistent, I intend to issue guidelines on social media cases for prosecutors. These will assist them in deciding whether criminal charges should be brought in the cases that arise for their consideration. In the first instance, the CPS will draft interim guidelines. There will then be a wide public consultation before final guidelines are published...
But this is not just a matter for prosecutors. Social media is a new and emerging phenomenon raising difficult issues of principle, which have to be confronted not only by prosecutors but also by others including the police, the courts and service providers.
The fact that offensive remarks may not warrant a full criminal prosecution does not necessarily mean that no action should be taken. In my view, the time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media.
The QC's comment about service providers could yet send a chill through the execs of Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, who are already speaking behind closed doors to MPs and peers seeking answers to how the Home Office might expand its snooping powers online. That said, the bigger Web2.0 players have a pretty good record of responding to police requests for information about people understood to have committed alleged criminal offences. England's 2011 summer riots are a good case in point here. ®